Anne Berner is Finland's Minister for Nordic Cooperation as well as Transport and Communications. She was recently in Nigeria for a meeting of Nordic-Africa Foreign Affairs ministers. In this online interview with Clara Nwachukwu, the former Member of Parliament, who was voted the Businessperson of the Year 2009, by the Finnish Business Association, said the meeting was not only meant to strengthen relationships, but also to chart ways to ensure that the deadline for Sustainable Development Goals (Agenda 2030) are met, for which she identified Trade and investment as crucial. Excerpts:
Tell us, what is the purpose of your visit to Nigeria?
I am very pleased to be in Abuja to participate in the 16th Nordic-Africa Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs. I think this is an excellent opportunity to have informal, in-depth discussions between Nordic and African counterparts, and to strengthen the long-standing partnership between the Nordic and African countries.
I want to commend Nigeria for organising this meeting, and specifically for its important and timely theme: 'Ensuring Sustainable Development through Trade and Investment'. We need to start ensuring now that we will achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (Agenda 2030) by the deadline. Trade and investment have a crucial role here. We are committed to working hard with our African partners, to increase inclusive growth and, ultimately, increase the wellbeing of people. I am looking forward to presenting in the meeting the kind of expertise and support we can offer.
How would you describe bilateral trade relations between Finland and Nigeria, especially as this is tilted in favour of your country?
There are many win-win opportunities. At the moment, there is still a lot of unused potential, and I believe our trade relations could be significantly stronger. Finnish businesses can offer many things that hold great relevance for Nigeria: renewable energy, ICT, Cleantech, health, and education, to name a few. One of my messages here in Nigeria is to encourage Nigerian companies to export to Finland, too, and to make the most of the partnership opportunities that exist.
What is the Finnish Government doing to strengthen its economic relationship with Nigeria?
Trade promotion is our main focus in Nigeria. My visit here is an important demonstration of the level of interest that we have for your country. It is a clear indication of my government's wish to strengthen economic and other relations between our two countries - as of course with other African countries, too.
We are able to offer very concrete support, to strengthen these relations. At this meeting, I have with me a representative of the Finnish Business Partnership Programme, Finnpartnership. She is here to inform interested Nigerian businesses and other actors about their match-making and funding services. Finnpartnership can actually help Nigerian companies find business partners in Finland, and can also give information on how to export to Finland.
High-level visits have an important role. We are in the process of planning a Ministerial trade promotion visit to Nigeria this year; along the same lines we did last year very successfully.
You are also the Minister of Transport and Communication in Finland, but these two sectors are in separate ministries in Nigeria, how challenging is it coping with the responsibilities of three ministries?
I am indeed Minister for Transport and Communication, as well as Minister for Nordic Cooperation. In Finland, transport and communication are located in one ministry that is responsible for ensuring the basic level of transport and communication services, improving access to data, providing opportunities for data-based businesses, and ensuring the functioning of transport and communications networks and routes and online markets.
It is, of course, a heavy responsibility, but the sectors are, at the same time, also mutually reinforcing. As Minister for Nordic Cooperation, I want to see progress in joint Nordic efforts in the business sector.
Looking at Nigeria's Transport sector, which areas do you think the Finnish Government or business community can come in to assist along the value chain of the sub-sects including Public transportation, Rail, Maritime and Air?
Finns have a lot of expertise in infrastructure - we have to: our extreme climate, and long distances are a challenge for public transport. When we build transport infrastructure, it has to be solid. I would be very happy to see more partnerships in these areas between Finland and Nigeria.
I would also like to mention digital infrastructure. Digitalisation is a very important priority for my Government. It affects in countless ways the everyday life of all parts of the population. Finnish businesses have a lot of expertise in this area, and I see vast potential for Finnish-Nigerian cooperation here.
How far have discussions gone in this regard - if there have been moves already in any of the Transport sub-sectors?
In terms of digitalisation, the Finnish telecommunications giant NOKIA, is already present in Nigeria, and partnering with Nigerian actors on digital initiatives. In my meetings during this visit I have a good opportunity to raise these matters, too.
In the area of Communication, Nigeria is still struggling to catch up with global trends - migrating to digital television, adopting 4G and now 5G networks and Internet of Things as well as increasing broadband penetration. How would you describe Nigeria's struggle in all of these? And how do you think it can better cope with these challenges?
I understand that Nigeria has not been able to fully benefit from the possibilities of the technological revolution. In Finland, we believe capitalising on new technologies strengthens economic growth and in the end brings wellbeing to everybody. For the same reason, digitalisation is an important priority for my government. This, of course, requires the necessary infrastructure.
I understand cybercrime and data security are challenges in Nigeria, as they are in other parts of the world, too. In the digital age, we have to be able to protect our security in hardware, software, automated vehicles, robots and other digital services. Economic growth and development of innovative businesses models are highly dependent on users´ trust in digital security and privacy.
Finnish businesses have very strong know-how in the field of information security, and there are several Finnish companies that offer services and products related to data security. We would be happy to share our knowledge and our innovations, to help Nigeria benefit from the global wave of new technologies, and to fight the negative aspects like cybercrime.
Finland is strong in Information Communication Technology, but its only link with Nigeria is through Nokia handsets, which it has already sold to Microsoft. Is Finland planning to increase its presence in the Nigerian communication sector? If yes, what areas are you looking at?
NOKIA, of course, is a global leader in the technologies that connect people and things. It is one of the Finnish companies that are already strongly present in Nigeria. I know many Nigerians have very fond memories of NOKIA handsets - and as you know, the legendary 3310 is back. However, NOKIA does a lot more than that. Its main focus is on networks. For example, NOKIA is working closely with the Nigerian Government in its smart city initiative.
I would be happy to see more Finnish ICT firms active in Nigeria. One of the messages I will be taking back home is to encourage Finnish ICT companies to expand to the Nigerian market.
Over a year ago, in April to be exact, Finpro, the Finnish Trade and Investment Promotion Agency, brought about seven ICT companies to Nigeria. What progress has been made thereafter? And how far have the innovations and solutions they brought boosted local businesses.
Great partnerships and concrete business has materialised. Many of the companies have also done capacity training locally and enhanced ICT infrastructure in several Nigerian companies. One of the companies even entered into a "first of its kind" partnership in Nigeria with a local telecoms operator where phones would be given out free and charged on monthly basis which would allow more Nigerians to have access to smart phones.
Beyond ICT and elevators/escalators (Kone), what other areas of the economy is the Finnish business community interested in increasing or establishing its presence in Nigeria?
First, I want to mention that there is a growing interest in Finland for the Nigerian and the West African market. As you mention, NOKIA and KONE are already doing business in Nigeria.
I know the Nigerian economy has grown fast over the past decade. The infrastructure, telecommunications, energy and agricultural sectors are expected to grow significantly in the future, too. We have important expertise in all these sectors, as well as in areas such as health and education. I will certainly do my best to promote cooperation between Finland and Nigeria in these fields.